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Terra-Gen Electrified the Conversation. What Now? 

click to enlarge A December protest in Rio Dell against Terra-Gen's proposed wind project.

Photo by Mark McKenna

A December protest in Rio Dell against Terra-Gen's proposed wind project.

Terra-Gen's Humboldt Wind Project was flawed but it would have offered this: a large and sudden pulse of low-carbon energy, enough to fill approximately 56 percent of Humboldt's total electricity needs. With its demise, our odds at reaching our global climate goals become more distant while our challenge to achieve 100 percent clean, renewable energy from local sources is markedly more difficult. Its rejection now raises a new and more pressing moral imperative that we act, and quickly. If not this project, how will we meet our clean energy needs? We face a climate crisis that demands bold action now. We can't wait.

There is a Humboldt solution: locally-created, locally-financed and locally-owned power. We can and need to invest as a county in our own energy production. Humboldt County is a bondable authority. Our county is underleveraged in terms of its debt-to-asset ratio and this project is capable of generating revenue that can pay off the debt incurred, two important criteria that would make Humboldt well-suited and attractive for a municipal bond. After our bond obligations are paid, we also have something special: community-owned energy that generates revenue that could be used to reinvest in more renewable energy production.

What would this project be? We will need to diversify our electric portfolio to provide a responsible and stable grid mix. This means investment in all of the renewable energy technologies as appropriate, including solar, new biomass systems, run-of-the-river hydro, and, yes, large-scale wind energy. In an age of information at everyone's fingertips, it is easy to find fault in virtually any project. We must embark on a community project with the understanding that compromises will need to be made. That said, as the county would ultimately develop the project, compromises can be made deliberately and democratically. As we learned from the Humboldt Wind Project, energy development projects need to come from the community, be good for the whole community and include the community in the planning process.

During the public dialogue, many raised the need to invest heavily, if not solely, in distributed solar microgrid systems, such as the one installed at the Blue Lake Rancheria. These systems, while an important tool, are not sufficient to meet our energy needs. While the PG&E planned power shutoffs have demonstrated the need for more microgrid systems to support the necessary civil infrastructure that we are reliant upon — hospitals, wastewater treatment facilities, government offices, etc. — microgrid systems are currently too expensive to provide affordable power on a large scale.

We face a climate crisis and it is our moral imperative to do something about it. Decarbonizing our energy infrastructure is the lowest hanging fruit. Carbon emissions associated with energy production account for approximately 13 percent of Humboldt County's emissions. These emissions are mostly attributable to those from the Humboldt Bay Generating Station, our large natural gas energy plant. By producing new renewable energy at scale, we can begin to depower the plant and eventually mothball the facility when we provide sufficient reliable energy to the larger grid. 

Decarbonizing our energy infrastructure is also critical to reducing emissions in other areas. Far and away, Humboldt's — and the nation's — largest emission category is transportation, at over 50 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Here, achieving emission reductions is more challenging and involves both reducing total vehicle miles travelled by car and plane and electrifying transportation. Of course, however, electrifying our transportation fleet will only achieve the necessary emission reductions if that energy comes from low-carbon sources.

Humboldt is well suited to develop the kind of renewable energy projects we need to meet future energy needs. We are blessed to have local renewable energy experts at Schatz Energy Research Center, the Redwood Coast Energy Authority and in the private sector. Local investment in renewable energy will also provide new opportunities to pursue the green tech jobs of the future.

The Humboldt Wind Project electrified the passions of individuals on both sides of the debate. It is my hope that all of the energy put into the consideration of that project will now come forward to support a locally-produced clean energy future.

Tom Wheeler is the executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center and prefers he/him pronouns.

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Tom Wheeler

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